Over 5 years ago, attempting to carve a new direction from a legacy of failures, the Ministry of Water Resources proclaimed that it intends to ensure that potable drinking water would be available in all villages by 2004. But two years ago, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the nation's constitutionally enshrined supreme audit institution predicted differently. There is a strong question mark about the possibility of the achievement of the new envisaged objective of providing potable drinking water to all villages by 2004, said the CAG in its 2002 report.
The CAG's skepticism on the Central governments plans and purposes arose from informed appraisal. Reviewing years of water supply misplanning and negligence, the CAG had also reported in 2002 to Parliament that in terms of providing adequate and potable water to the rural population the picture was far from satisfactory, despite incurring an expenditure Rs.32302.21 crore on the Rural Water Supply Programme since the First Five Year Plan. (1 crore = 10 million, 100 crore = 1 billion, 10 lakh = 1 million)
How was the Rs.32000 crores spent? A look at the schemes, the planning and the outcomes using currently available CAG reports is informative.
In 1972-73, the Accelerated Rural Water Supply System was introduced with the objective of providing safe and adequate drinking water facilities to the rural population and to supplement the efforts of state government in this task by the way of centrally sponsored programme to be financed entirely through grant-in-aid. But following the introduction of the Minimum Needs Programme (MNP) in the State Sector in 1974-75, the ARWSP was discontinued. The Programme was then revived in 1977-78, when the progress in regard to provision of safe drinking water to the identified problem villages under MNP was not found to be satisfactory.
The renewed programme aimed to ensure coverage of all rural habitations, especially those hitherto un-reached and not having access to safe drinking water, sustainability of the systems and sources and preservation of quality of water by institutionalizing water quality monitoring and surveillance, through a catchment area approach.
Within a decade, in February 1986, the Ministry of Rural Areas and Employment launched National Drinking Water Mission. This was done with a view to ensure maximum inflow of scientific and technical inputs into the Rural Water Supply Programme and to ensure availability of adequate water of acceptable quality on a long-term basis. The Programme was now taken up as a mission. (The Mission mode implied the provision of low cost solutions to identify problems associated with the supply of safe drinking water through the application of scientific and technological inputs.) The Mission covered in addition to renewed thrust on centrally sponsored ongoing ARWSP, 55 Mini Missions and five Sub Missions.
As on March 1997, Rs.15229.24 crores had been spent (during the VII plan and onwards) and yet when it came to realizing the aims and objective, 62000 habitations remained without any source of water and 3.78 lakh habitations were only partially covered. Even as the efforts to target No Source villages started showing results, there was re-emergence of old villages back on the No Source register due to large scale in-operative water supply schemes and hand pumps on account of their non-maintenance, marking an overall negative impact on the scheme. A survey conducted in Maharashtra in the year 1991-'92 identified 35216 habitations having water availability problems; a re-assessment survey undertaken in the year 1995-'96 reported 50806 problem habitations, showing a remergence water problems in over 15000 habitations.
Is time overrun and corresponding cost escalations a prerogative of large infrastructure projects only? Deficiency in planning and unscientific identification of water sources gave rise to time overruns ranging from 2 to 16 years, and led to escalations in the costs upto Rs.116.58 crores in addition to force the government to abandon schemes mid way. On the other hand, in 16 states materials worth Rs.84.86 crores were purchased in excess of requirement and were lying idle.
Financial statements also inflated '92-'97 achievements to the tune of Rs.384.43 crores by classifying amounts such as advances, funds diverted to other schemes and those kept in personal/revenue deposits etc., as programme expenditure. Water treatment plants installed at cost of Rs.5.47 crore to control fluorosis, remove excess iron and salinity were non-functional resulting in continued supply of unsafe water to the rural water population.
But none of this went unnoticed at the CAG. The audit watchdogs performance appraisals of the nineties are available for perusal. In its 1998 report (for the year ending March 1997) the CAG stressed that The implementation and execution of the scheme was oriented towards incurring of expenditure rather than achieving the results and impact thereof. Financial shortcomings relating to diversion of funds to other schemes/activities not connected with the scheme, expenditure met out of ARWSP funds instead of state plan funds, advances treated as final expenditure though not actually spent, suspected mis-appropriation of funds, inadmissible payment of departmental charges were noticed during audit.
Following this appraisal, the Planning Commission working group for the IX Plan recommended the outlay of Rs.40255 crore for covering left over works, provision of water to 26000 no source habitations, 3.03 lakh partially covered habitations, and 1.32 lakh quality impacted habitations and related activities.
Did that result in change?
No. In its 2002 report that was quoted at the beginning of this article, the CAG stressed yet again, Despite the added thrust given to the programme since 1999, planning and implementation suffered on account of neglect of priority areas like sustainability, community participation, operation and maintenance, etc. Poor fund management led to large amounts being diverted or retained in deposits, apart from expenditure being incurred in excess over approved norms.
As of April 2001, about 20,073 habitations did not have any source of water. 1.55 lakh habitations remained only partially covered and re-emergence of 73,197 problem habitations in 7 States negated the impact of the programme. Inadequate maintenance of water sources resulted in failure of a substantial number of hand pumps installed. In 13 States, water modes, set up at a cost of Rs.369.20 crore were non-operational. Water treatment plants, installed at a cost of Rs.16.32 crore to control fluorosis, excess iron and salinity were non-functional. Poor performance of water quality testing laboratories defeated the objective of providing safe drinking water to the rural population in the affected areas.
Rs.283.90 crore were spent on coverage of partially covered habitations during 1997-2001, contrary to the priority norms even though there were habitations having no source of drinking water.
Significant components of the Programme such as Human Resource Development and Information, Education and Communication failed to achieve the objectives of creating awareness on use of safe drinking water and imparting training to the local population.
Application of funds without adequate planning and scientific identification of water sources led to abandonment of 2,371 schemes midway in 19 States, costing Rs.197.52 crore. Scientific methods of source selection were not adopted in 10 States, causing failure of the schemes and rendering Rs.64.71 crore wasteful.
Diversion of funds of Rs.86.15 crore to activities not connected with the programme, unauthorised retention of funds of Rs.393.77 crore in Civil/Revenue/Public Works Deposit, inflated financial achievement of Rs.307.69 crore, excess expenditure of Rs.191.41 crore met from ARWSP funds instead of from State Plan funds, materials costing Rs.68.79 crore purchased in excess of requirements were amongst the shortcomings noticed in programme implementation.
(for details: http://cag.nic.in)
The shocking aspect is that while the CAG's performance appraisals appear to highlight deep rooted problems, the Ministry of Water Resources boasts of having introduced reforms. The prime objectives of the Programme as modified in April 1999 were to: (i) ensure coverage of all rural habitations, especially those hitherto un-reached and not having access to safe drinking water; (ii) ensure sustainability of the systems and sources; and (iii) preserve quality of water by institutionalising water quality monitoring and surveillance through a catchment area approach. (Catchments area approach implied institutionalizing the water quality monitoring systems by involving various grass root level technical and educational institutions.)
The audit watchdog concluded its 2002 appraisal saying, in terms of providing adequate and potable water to the rural population the picture was far from satisfactory, despite incurring an expenditure Rs.32302.21 crore on the Rural Water Supply Programme since the First Five Year Plan. As of April 2001, there were still 1.55 lakh PC (partially covered) habitations and 20,073 NC (non-covered) habitations. These figures will go up further if one takes into account the significant re-emergence of PC/NC habitations, despite their reported coverage in many States. In the present monitoring system of the Ministry, this negative coverage was not being accounted for."
We are into October 2004, and rural areas in India still reel under water crises. Despite all of this, the Ministry of Water Resources has recently been busy talking tall about linking nations rivers to meet drinking water needs of rural populace.